A few minutes with Lornah Kiplagat

Lornah Kiplagat, 36, has been absent from the racing scene for awhile, but she’s back. She has excelled at distances from the 5K to the marathon, and has continued to race competitively across that distance spectrum throughout her career. She holds four world records for road racing: 5K, 10M, 20K and half marathon. Originally from Kenya, she has been a Dutch citizen since 2003. The Mini 10K was one in a series of post-surgery “comeback” races for Kiplagat. A four-time winner of that event, she’d hoped for a fifth title and was leading for the first half of the race before being overtaken by the eventual winner, Linet Masai. Kiplagat would finish fourth.

You’ve been running fast forever. How have you managed to have such a consistent career?
I think it’s just good planning. Good support, the right people around you. And a lot of running. So if I can also do that as a career, then you like to do that extra.

After setting the world record for the half in Udine, Italy, 2007.

What’s it like to have a tulip named after you?
It’s nice. How did you know about that?

I went to one of your sites and there was a story about that. I thought that was pretty neat.
Yes, it was nice of the Dutch that they did that for me. They mentioned this to me about seven years ago, even more. They thought it was a good idea, and they started preparation for it. Because it takes a long time. But it finally came out. It’s a very funny flower because it’s very strong. We have tulips and home and normally tulips don’t last long. They were lasting like for three weeks!

That’s very appropriate for a marathoner.
Yeah. Tulips normally just wither down.

Do you train in Holland?
Yes. But mostly in Kenya. Because of the altitude. It’s nice in Holland in the summer. I like it. But in the winter, it’s better in Kenya, for sure.

I was reading about your High Altitude Training Centre in Kenya. It seems like the focus has become less on athletics and more on academics.
The focus is really both. But we’re more into giving opportunities to top athletes all over the world. So they are able to train there.

Did you always have it in your head that you wanted to start something like this?
It was with a group of people. We have one guy in Kenya that’s selecting students. And they are staying in my place. They get coaching. They also get to study there. After that, they can come to America. We do it with four people. My part is to coach them — not so much to coach them, but to motivate them. So it works really good. They are boys and girls, top students from high school.

Is your foundation still focused on AIDS prevention and AIDS education?
Yeah. We are growing, actually. We’re starting up a high school for 300 girls. The training camp was so small. We could do only 12-15 girls.

How did you manage to grow it so quickly?
We’ve not yet gotten funding, but we have the plans for doing that.

How do you select who gets into the school?
They have to meet a certain academic level. And they all have to be doing something in sport. Football, hockey, running.

Do they have to maintain a certain level of academic consistency to remain in the school?
Yes. They have to. You know, they come there and they go down…we want them to come there and go even higher. Academically and in sport. This would be a boarding school. Before we didn’t have a school. They would only stay there during holidays. They could go to schools all over Kenya. They’d come to us in August and December, but it was not enough. It was too short to do something. Finally, I said, “I’m doing something, but it’s not enough.” So we needed to put [together] a better structure. We hope the first class will be 2013. It’s nearby the altitude training center. We’re trying to get the funding, but even if we don’t get it, it will still happen with our own money. I’ve got the ground to build the school already. It’s 18 hectares. That was the hardest part — getting the ground.

What made it so difficult? Finding the right place?
That and getting the right ground in such a place is almost impossible anymore. Getting a space that big. I had to move four families.

Was that difficult? Did they not want to leave?
No, it was an opportunity for them. If they give me one acre of land, then I have to buy them two and a half somewhere else. But in a nice place, where they can really farm. And still with some money on top of that. So they saw it as an opportunity to get more land. That was the most difficult part, and now that’s done. So the rest — putting up the buildings — is not a big deal for me. If we get funding, it will go quicker. If we don’t, it will go slower. But still, it will happen.

Do people know that you’re doing this project? Do people at these things ask you about it?
I don’t even talk about it. When I see that you’re interested, I talk about it. But normally I don’t even mention it.

No, I ask because I was surprised. I did some research on you yesterday. I know you as a runner but had no idea you were heading up all these other projects.
I don’t think most people are interested. They just want to see how the running will be. This is for my own good feeling. I don’t want to be just a runner and then pass by. I want to be a runner, but establish my roots. You want to know where you came from and where you end, what you brought to influence society. That’s what we [with husband/coach Pieter Langenhorst] do. Pieter supports me very well with this work. He’s the one making things happen. Sometimes you can be together, but if the other partner doesn’t have the same motivation, it doesn’t work. For us, it works very well.

I came across an interview with you a few years ago in which you were describing your experience of going to one of your first races in Kenya. You slept in a bathroom. There was basically no support. Have things improved in the last 18 years?
Yeah. It’s improved a lot. It’s like day and night.

Yes, it was really shocking.
It’s quite impossible now to have that kind of experience. There are so many athletes now, so many girls. Girls running now is a normal thing.

Is it still one of the biggest professional opportunities there?
Absolutely. In the last 10 years, it’s grown like crazy.

Can I ask you about your running, or are you tired of answering questions about that?
No, it’s okay.

You’ve been coming back with some shorter races. Are you planning on returning to the marathon?
I will build up slowly now, since I am coming back from injury. But end up at the marathon.

Do you have one in mind?
Not yet.

As you’ve moved into your thirties, have you found that you need more recovery between hard workouts?
Yes.

Are you doing two workouts a week now? Or three?
I run, of course, every day. I do speed work three times a week. But not very sharp, though.

What kind of mileage are you doing right now?
70-80 miles a week. Not a lot.

What do you get up to when you’re peaking in your training for the marathon?
If I’m going for the marathon, for sure over 100.

Do you think after you turn 40 that you’ll keep competing?
No, I think I will just go to easy running. But not competing. It depends.

Because a lot of women are running well into their forties.
I’m not far from 40…

That’s why I’m asking.
I will just see how it will go.

If you scale back the running, will you spend more time on these other projects?
Yeah. That’s like my baby.

Do you think doping is widespread in women’s distance running?
No, I don’t believe it. Because I know most of the women in distance running and most of them are really clean.

I know it was bad in the eighties. A lot of the Chinese times, people don’t even really count because it’s assumed they were all on something.
And it is possible [to excel without drugs]. It’s just a matter of training hard. Simple. No shortcuts. Knowing most of the girls in long distance, you can tell that they train hard. Even in competition, you can see somebody who you can say, “Hey, something is wrong.” So it happens, but it’s not common.

Do you train by heart rate?
No.

How do you know how hard to run?
I used a GPS watch. Every kilometer, I know what speed I’m running and I feel. So if I’m running under 4:00 per K, and I’m feeling good.

Do you race with a GPS?
Sometimes [Kiplagat wore her Garmin 310xt at the Mini 10K]. When I’m not sure, I race with a GPS.

A lot of people are funny about it. They think it’s cheating, that you have an advantage over other people in the race. Or they assume that elites never use them.
No. It’s no different with a watch. Every kilometer, you can see [the split]. What’s the difference? There’s no difference.

Mini 10K wardrobe plans

For anyone interested, tomorrow I will be racing the Mini 10K sporting black shorts, an Orangina-colored shirt, Asics Hyperspeed 3s and a stern expression. Maybe also sunglasses, although I don’t like wearing them when it’s too hot because my nose gets all sweaty and then irritated by salt (TMI?).

I spent most of the morning talking to the Mini 10K elites. They included:

  • Kara Goucher
  • Paula Radcliffe
  • Lornah Kiplagat
  • Magda Lewy-Boulet
  • Emily Chebet*
  • Benita Willis
  • Kim Smith
  • Adriana Pirtea

Somebody pinch me.

A preview: The highlights for me were Lewy-Boulet, who had a lot to say about fostering post-collegiate talent; Pirtea, a surprise showing who I didn’t research but got some great answers from in response to hastily improvised questions; Kiplagat, who as far as I’m concerned is the reigning Queen of Distance Running (or maybe Co-Queen with Catherine Ndereba) and who I could have spent all day asking questions of if she had let me.

Some news: Irina Mikitenko is out with a “back twinge” according to one of the NYRR media people. Too bad. I really wanted to ask her about compression socks, “good” vs. “bad” running form and other weighty matters.

I have no idea when I’ll get to post about this morning’s chats since tomorrow is a race and Sunday I need to get to work on my third Houston Hopefuls interview. And spend the morning shepharding Jonathan to and from a race in Connecticut. And some freelance work.

Then Monday I go back to my real job. And I have more freelance work starting next week. And then the Vermont Relay all next weekend.

Fucking hell. I have way too much to do.

Good luck to everyone racing tomorrow. I was excited about this race until I spoke to the elites this morning. Now I’m mega-excited. If you’re spectating, you’re in for quite a show. I am amazed at the depth of talent NYRR will have assembled on the starting line this year. Nice video with some history.

There will be a New York Harriers cheering section at Engineer’s Gate (90th and Fifth on the East Side) tomorrow. I don’t know what they have up their sleeves, but this tantalizingly cryptic message was posted to their message board this afternoon by one “tmk030″:

We have a special cheering approach planned for Saturday’s race that you don’t want to miss. While I can’t reveal the details because of the sensitive nature of the subject; this is one spectacle that you don’t want to miss. Meet us at the West 90th street entrance to the park right before 9:00 am on Saturday and participate in an event that will change the way Cheering is done for races in central park forever!

You’re going to like the way we cheer and I guarantee it!

* Who I think is more likely than not going to win, and I can say that because I’m not a real journalist but merely a journeywoman blogger.

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